This was pure pleasure--a reinvention (or is that revitalization?) of the zombie mythos, a compelling and often surprising what-happens-next? page-turner, and as sweet, funny, moving, and yet tough-minded as the very best of Bradbury (or John Crowley, who gets a hat/tip).
My rating may go up. But this is awesome; I've really enjoyed Gregory's novels, but this is something.
(And now Mira Grant and Colson Whitehead have a pretty high bar to jump for their uses of the zombie. . . .)
A longer review to come. And arrived:
The premise builds on the Romero base -- a zombie outbreak on the east coast, in 1968, happened, but got contained. (Romero's "documentary" is referenced a few times.) Since then, the US government has amped up surveillance and secret ops, ever vigilant against recurrences, in a situation not too dissimilar from our own post-9/11 formerly-color-coded state of always-could-become-terrifying-so-don't-fret-too-much-about-our-rights context. Yet at the tail end of that first outbreak, a dead child was found, and the single mother raising her three young girls couldn't bear to kill the boy. So they kept him.
And he grows up. This physical impossibility is one of many departures from most zombie conventions, but Gregory--in brief digressions or extrapolations that delight--is actually trying to tease out some philosophically-grounded theory of zombies, riffing on but refuting (or at least reimagining) the generic tropes of epidemiology and infection. There's something strange about matter suddenly mobile, and there's a recurrent strand of this novel--like the author's prior two works--intrigued by the nature of the human, and how fantastic ideas (demons, genetic mutations, zombies) resonate with the on-going struggle to make sense of humanity and existence. As a horror fan and semi-knowledgeable zombie geek, I was gobsmacked by how Gregory's surprising transformations of lore made retroactive sense of the conventions. (He isn't just trashing old approaches but creating new contexts for interpreting them--and with wit, no smirks but a loving teasing sense of play.)
The novel traces young John--nicknamed Stony--in youth, adolescence, and then as an adult; it's a zombildungsroman, utterly enjoyable for the sophistication Gregory brings to characterization, even with walk-on parts, and Stony is thoughtful and likable (maybe a bit too likable?) -- and overall, one "flaw" in the novel is how, even when engaging the meanness of human behavior or the horrors of the inhuman it is relentlessly humane. If you're seeking a dark satire or a horror novel, move along. And while I might have wished for a bit more bite, this is a zombie novel by way of Ray Bradbury--a what-if, with a lot of sadness and wonder but not much dread and no terror.
That said, there are traces of social satire, never reduced to mere allegory. Intriguingly, all of Gregory's novels are alternate histories -- he goes back in time, reimagines recent US history through these genre tropes. Or maybe it's metafictional in intent: inevitably, some character calls attention to the ways we fantasize, what our dreams of such creatures tell us about what bothers and delights and terrifies and underpins American culture. Or.... these hints of bigger Meaning or Purpose are fascinating but never really center-stage; the novel has a big Story, and rips right along, and Gregory's focus is on these people (or non-people) and their response to these big events.
It's a lovely novel--even the zombie-indifferent (or -antipathetic) would find much to relish. Gregory is a very good writer, and I can't wait to see where he goes next.